Marie Antionette’s female portraitist, videos, Mendelssohn, and the battle of Antietam: newsletter, April 26, 2019

April 29, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newsletter.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,830) on Friday, April 26, 2019.


This week a few folks — millions, in fact — celebrated World Book Day (April 23), an event begun in the 1990s by the United Nations to commemorate and recognize the importance of books to our world. One part of the celebration was the encouragement to support your local bookstore.

Like libraries, bookstores are a valuable resource for a community. A good bookstore is more than a place where you find objects (books) and pay for them. A well-run bookstore is a place to relax and linger. It’s a place to ask questions and expect intelligent answers. It’s a place to make friends and discoveries. And more.

The place where I live, Maryville, TN, has such a place — Southland Books and Cafe— that has been in business for nearly three decades. It’s a gem of a bookstore with great people running it. It enriches our community immeasurably. If your community is blessed with a place like that, show up there regularly, buy something, and get to know the folks who run it. You won’t be sorry.

Meanwhile, I hope that you have had a great week and are beginning a wonderful weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,830 subscribers and had a 27.1 percent open rate; 6people unsubscribed. A chart showing the percentage of newsletter recipients who opened the newsletter each week during 2019 is below the signature of this email.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antionette’s favorite artist and the woman who changed portrait painting (part 1)

Élisabeth Vigée (later Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun) painted her first exhibited portrait sometime before 1770 — a picture of her younger brother Étienne Vigée, who would later become a playwright and man of letters. 

When she executed that painting, she had not yet reached her fifteenth birthday. And with that painting, her genius was on full display, and a life in art was almost inevitable.

Élisebeth’s early life was one of extraordinary good fortune.

— She had a talent for portrait painting and, more importantly, an inclination to use and develop that talent.

— She had a father who was also an artist, who doted on her, and who taught and encouraged her.

— Because of her father’s position in the artistic realm of Paris, she had great teachers from a very early age.

— The artistic rage of her time was portrait painting. Everyone who was anyone wanted a portrait.

By the time she was fifteen (her father died when she was twelve, leaving her devastated with grief), she was supporting her family with so many portrait commissions that she barely had time to finish them. Her ascension as a French artist reached its highest levels when she became the favorite of Marie Antoinette while she was still in her twenties. She would paint more than 50 portraits of the queen, her husband, and the royal family.

When she was 20, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, also a painter as well as an art dealer and curator. Despite the fact that in her memoirs written later in life Élisabeth had few good things to say about her husband, Le Brun opened many doors for her and most crucially took her with him on a trip to Flanders and the Netherlands in 1781. There she saw many of the painting of the Dutch masters and especially those of Peter Paul Rubens.

Determined to apply the techniques that she had observed in the Netherlands, she returned to Paris and executed a self-portrait (Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1782, seen here) on wood rather than canvas that broke many of the conventions of portrait painting and caused a minor scandal. The work turned out to be highly popular, however, and she received many requests from patrons who wanted the same look she exhibited in that painting.

Her association with Marie Antionette, which had been so important to her reputation and income, became a detriment to her safety in 1789 when a mob stormed the Bastille, setting in motion the French Revolution. Élisabeth fled France with her daughter Julie when the royals were arrested and began a 12-year sojourn that took her around Europe and highlighted her fame.

That will story will be in part 2 bext week.

Poems and Paintings — the videos

I promised last week to have videos of some paintings I have completed accompanied by recitations of relevant poems. Here’s the complete list so far:

Evening Star and Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

And more are on the way.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Felix Mendelssohn and the ‘revival’ of Johann Sebastian Bach

It makes a great story: Johann Sebastian Bach had been dead for nearly 80 years and his music largely forgotten. Then a young musician saw some of Bach’s musical manuscripts — given to him by his great aunt, who was a student of one of Bach’s sons — and recognized his genius. He staged a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion that was very well received, and thus interest in the great composer was rekindled. The young musician? None other than Felix Mendelssohn.

That story has been told countless times and with many variations.

Very little of it happens to be true. Bach died in 1750, but his instrumental music was well known and played a great deal in the years after his death. What had been neglected were his choral works, particularly St. Matthew’s Passion. In 1829 the young Mendelssohn, who was beginning a conducting career, organized a performance of that work in Berlin. The performance was a critical success and the beginning of a renewed interest in Bach’s other vocal music.

Mendelssohn certainly deserves credit for that but not for reviving Bach’s lost reputation.  Peter Mercer-Taylor, in his biography The Life of Mendelssohn, writes:

The influence of Bach’s keyboard music on composers through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — Mozart and Beethoven not least among them — is well documented. (p. 74)

Yet the story grew and is still repeated today.

Mendelssohn, of course, was a world-class composer in his own right and deserves recognition on that score alone.

He was also an entertaining and facile writer — in both German and English — and a skilled sketch artist and watercolorist. He would often accompany his witty and perceptive letters with a drawing or watercolor, such this view of Lucerne, Switzerland, that he executed in 1847:

Mendelssohn, of course, was a brilliant composer, musician, and conductor, and he was rightly famous for those qualities in his lifetime and remembered for them today. He suffered ill health throughout his life and died after a series of strokes at the age of 38 in 1847.

Mendelssohn does not need to be the “founder of the Bach revival” to be remembered. He was a remarkable man with a wide range of talents. Find out more about him at The Mendelssohn Project.

George Smalley and the battle of Antietam

The fight in the ravine was in full progress, the batteries in the center were firing with new vigor, Franklin was blazing away on the right, and every hilltop, ridge and woods along the whole line was crested and veiled with white clouds of smoke.
George Smalley’s description of the battle of Antietam

During the hours after the battle of Antietam in September 1862, New York Tribune correspondent George Smalley went through hell.

Having attached himself to the headquarters staff of Gen. Joseph Hooker, Smalley had seen more of the battle than any other newspaper correspondent at the scene.

Desperate to get word back to his newspaper, he rode through the night to the telegraph station at Frederick, Maryland. The telegraph operator agreed to send a short account, and Smalley sat down and wrote one.

Fierce and desperate battle between two hundred thousand men has raged since daylight, yet night closes on an uncertain field. It is the greatest fight since Waterloo–all over the field contested with an obstinacy equal even to Waterloo. If not wholly a victory tonight, I believe it is the prelude to a victory tomorrow. . . .”

Smalley handed the telegraph operator each page as he wrote it. Without Smalley’s permission or knowledge, the operator sent the account to the War Department in Washington rather than to the Tribune in New York. There President Abraham Lincoln read his first account of the battle that he knew Union forces had to win.

Smalley’s job, however, was far from done.


George SmalleyGeorge Smalley was a well-educated man, especially for his time. He had attended Yale University and was a graduate of Harvard Law School. He had begun his law practice when war broke out between the North and the South. To see the action firsthand, he joined the staff of the New York Tribune.

Smalley was one of several Tribune reporters attached to the Union Army. When the battle of Antietam was about to begin, Smalley stayed with Gen. Joseph Hooker for a good part of the day, even performing some duties for the army in midst of the fighting.

As he went from place to place across the battlefield, Smalley — possibly more than any other man that day — had a sense of what was happening, of the fierceness of the fighting that few human beings had ever witnessed.

At the end of the day, Smalley met with other members of the Tribune’s reporting team and pooled their information. Then he began a hard ride to the telegraph office in Frederick.

In addition to the first paragraph, Smalley was able to transmit several others, including the following:

“The battle began with the dawn. Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other’s eyes. The left of Meade’s reserves and the right of Rickett’s line became engaged at nearly the same moment, one with artillery, the other with infantry. A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a ploughed field near the top of the slope where the cornfield began. On this open field, in the corn beyond, and in the woods which stretched forward into the broad fields like a promontory into the ocean, were the hardest and deadliest struggles of the day.
“For half an hour after the battle had grown to its full strength, the line of fire swayed neither way. Hooker’s men were fully up to their work. They saw their General everywhere in front, never away from the line, and all the troops believed in their commander, and fought with a will. Two thirds of them were the same men who under McDowell had broken at Manassas.
“The half-hour passed, the rebels began to give way a little–only a little, but at the first indication of a receding fire, Forward, was the word, and on went the line with a cheer and a rush. Back across the cornfield, leaving dead and wounded behind them, over the fence, and across the road, and then back again into the dark woods which closed around them went the retreating rebels.
“Meade and his Pennsylvanians followed hard and fast–followed till they came within easy range of the woods, among which they saw their beaten enemy disappearing– followed still, with another cheer, and flung themselves against the cover.

At some point in Frederick, Smalley realized that his dispatches were being sent to Washington rather than New York. He went to the railroad station to catch a train to Baltimore, writing for two hours while waiting for the train.

He fell asleep on the train — his first sleep in 36 hours — and nearly missed the connection to New York. Once on the train heading north, he resumed writing.

The War Department, which had first received Smalley’s reports, sent them on to the Tribune in New York. By the time Smalley arrived and walked into the newspaper office on Nassau Street, typesetters and proofreaders were waiting. Word had also gotten to the newspaper office about Smalley himself, and his colleagues broke into applause when they saw him.

An hour later, the Tribune hit the streets with the first account of that important battle. It included paragraphs such as

“The fight in the ravine was in full progress, the batteries in the center were firing with new vigor, Franklin was blazing away on the right, and every hilltop, ridge and woods along the whole line was crested and veiled with white clouds of smoke. All day had been clear and bright since the early cloudy morning, and now this whole magnificent, unequalled scene shone with the splendor of an afternoon September sun. Four miles of battle, its glory all visible, its horrors all hidden, the fate of the Republic hanging on the hour–could anyone be insensible of its grandeur?”

For a more complete account of George Smalley’s scoop, see Cowen Brew’s article in America’s Civil War. Also see Louis M Starr, Reporting the Civil War (New York: Collier) 1962; and Emmet Crozier, Yankee Reporters 1861-65 (New York: Oxford) 1956,


Annamaria G.: Great story (on Han Van Meegeren in last week’s newsletter).  By the way a good read is the Scarlett Sky, a true story of a young Italian and the role he played during the Nazi occupation and fascist rule in Italy. We must never forget that “vigilance is the price of liberty” and to be complacent or complacent when unscrupulous leaders thirst for power rather than justice threatens the soundness of a democracy.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Batter up (watercolor)
Baseball season demands a watercolor. That’s all there is to it.

Best quote of the week:

In the end, the poem is not a thing we see; it is, rather, a light by which we may see–and what we see is life. Robert Penn Warren, novelist and poet (1905-1989) 

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Watercolors as photography, the would-be Vermeer, Ridge Running, and Charles Darwin: newsletter, April 19, 2016


Ridge Running: A Memoir of Appalachia (repeated from last week)

My good friend Chris Wohlwend, an award-winning big-city journalist, has just published a memoir of his life growing up in Knoxville titled Ridge Running: A Memoir of Appalachia.

I had the privilege of helping Chris get this thing into print and ebook form, so I can tell you that it is an interesting, humorous, and engaging book to read. I have known Chris since our undergraduate days in the late 1960s at the University of Tennessee. I worked on the student daily, the UT Daily Beacon, and later at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the city’s afternoon newspaper, while Chris was on the copydesk of the  Knoxville Journal, the morning newspaper at the time.

This volume of Ridge Running tells many tales of those years in the newspaper business when the menagerie of characters included boxers, bettors, moonshiners, preachers, Playboy playmates, and even a president (of the United States). Chris tells it all with verve, wit, and wisdom.

Chris left Knoxville in 1972 for the greener journalistic pastures of places like Louisville, Charlotte, Kansas City, Dallas, Atlanta, and Miami. He has returned to Knoxville but still travels hither and yon to write an occasional article for the New York Times.

Take a look at Ridge Running. You’ll like what you see.










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